The Founding of the NAACP
The founding of the NAACP was, of course, a milestone in African-American history, and in U.S. race relations. The group's founding approach—African-Americans and whites uniting in opposition to discriminatory laws and social practices—proved popular, and the NAACP expanded rapidly. Its first meeting had been attended by just 53 people; within two years it boasted chapters in Chicago, Boston, and New York; a magazine, the Crisis, founded in 1910 and edited until 1932 by W. E. B. DuBois, became a national platform for civil rights issues.
What is the NAACP's dominant philosophy for securing legal and social advances for African-Americans? The organization has consistently promoted nonviolent protest and the escalation of civil rights challenges within the existing American legal system. Over the years, the NAACP has drawn criticism from some corners for avoiding a more militant approach in addressing racial issues in the United States—but it has maintained its approach nonetheless.
A side note: There is, in various corners of the African-American community, some disillusionment with today's NAACP; it's worth observing here that this disillusionment is often connected with the organization's undelivered promise of economic parity through social equality. Many feel that Booker T. Washington was, in fact correct: Social validation, in the final analysis, really is a byproduct of self-sufficiency.
Before Brown v. Board of Education
For many people, the NAACP is synonymous with legal action in such landmark civil rights cases as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which forbade segregation in public schools. The case was argued successfully by NAACP attorney (and future Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. In the important decades before Brown was decided, however, the NAACP consistently challenged racial violence, injustice, and stereotyping on many fronts.
Here's a brief sampling of some of the struggles the organization undertook in its early years:
- 1910 onward: The organization mounted an increasingly vocal campaign to increase public awareness of lynchings in the south. The NAACP was also a tireless advocate of anti-lynching legislation in the first half of the century. Considering the tendency of white lawmakers in Congress to ignore or filibuster laws providing for punishment of this particular brand of hate crime, the NAACP had to be tireless. An anti-lynching measure that had made it through the House of Representatives in 1922 was defeated by means of a filibuster led by southern senators; a proposal for a 1934 anti-lynching bill was shelved by the (supposedly progressive) New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The NAACP's persistent protest and lobbying efforts against lynching were, however, sustained and impossible to ignore. These efforts were a major factor in the eventual wave of national revulsion that helped to bring a long-overdue decline in this bloody southern “tradition.”
What's the Word?
To filibuster is to indefinitely prolong “debate” about a given bill or measure that you do not have the votes to defeat on an up-or-down vote. Lawmakers engage in filibusters in the hope that their opponents will eventually withdraw the measure under discussion. For much of the twentieth century, white supremacist southern senators used the filibuster—a seemingly endless series of random speeches that continue until a motion to conclude debate is carried—to derail proposed anti-lynching legislation, voting rights bills, and many other measures.
- 1915: The NAACP protested against showings of the racist film Birth of a Nation. The film's crude racial stereotypes and depiction of gallant white Confederate patriots overshadowed its technical innovations. Then as now, the organization spoke out against demeaning media stereotypes of African-Americans and their lifestyles.
- 1917 onward: The NAACP helped to coordinate huge nonviolent mass protests. One notable example was as the silent march in New York of ten thousand African-Americans, which took place in this year. The event was held in protest of racially motivated violence, abuse, and discrimination.
- 1930: The NAACP made headlines with its loud opposition to racist judiciary appointments. In this year, the organization challenged President Hoover's appointment of North Carolina Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court and launched a nationwide protest campaign. The nomination failed.
- 1933: The NAACP initiated a fateful challenge to the legality of segregation. In a preview of later legal battles, the organization brought suit against the University of North Carolina for denying admission to Thomas Hocutt. The suit was unsuccessful, but it formed the NAACP's first move in a comprehensive legal assault on segregated public institutions and state-sanctioned discriminatory policies.
- 1936: The NAACP challenged unequal salary structures for African-American teachers. In a Maryland lawsuit, the organization initiated what would ultimately be a successful legal challenge to radically differing, racially discriminatory pay scales for public school teachers. Ironically, when white Southerners argued in favor of maintaining segregated school systems in the 1950s, they used the NAACP's victory on behalf of previously underpaid African-American teachers as evidence that segregated school systems are inherently equal institutions.
- 1939: The NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund was born. The new outfit, headed by attorney Thurgood Marshall, was the launching-point for the most important civil rights cases of the century.
- 1941: The NAACP elevated its media skills to high art. The Daughters of the American Revolution—an elite women's organization for descendants of those who helped win the Revolutionary War—announced that African-American singer Marian Anderson would be forbidden from singing at Constitution Hall. NAACP leaders decided to make the most of the snub. They worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to win approval from President Franklin Roosevelt for Anderson to give a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. FDR loved the idea, and the NAACP had one of its most stirring public relations triumphs. Seventy-five thousand people showed up—among them some of the most prominent politicians, jurists, and diplomats in the country—to hear Anderson give a performance that is still regarded as incomparable. The leadership of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and racists everywhere, managed to look heartless … not to mention easily outmaneuvered in the court of public opinion.
On the March
Eleanor Roosevelt gave up her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when the group refused to permit the famed African-American singer Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. The incident—and Anderson's later triumphant concert at the Lincoln Memorial—won sympathy and national acclaim for the African-American cause … and a public relations nightmare for the DAR. (Of course, the incident also exposed supremacist elements within the highest levels of American society.)
- 1942 onward: The NAACP lobbied on behalf of African-American servicemen. African-Americans in the American armed services faced systematic abuse and discrimination. Many were court martialed unjustly. The NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund worked to get racially motivated convictions overturned; where this was impossible, members sought to win more lenient sentences for victims of military racism.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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